My Review of ‘Key Largo’ (1948)

It would be easy to dismiss this film as a mash-up of To Have and Have Not and Casablanca. But it’s more than that. The war is over and our protagonist ex-Major Frank McCloud (played by Humphrey Bogart) decides to drop in on the family of George Temple, a fellow soldier and friend who served with him, but didn’t survive.

Temple’s family consists of his father, James (played by Lionel Barrymore, who was actually confined to a wheelchair in life—that wasn’t acting) and his widow, Nora (played by Lauren Bacall), who have a hotel on the Key of the Title.

It’s also tempting to focus on the radiant chemistry between Bogie and Bacall right from jump. It almost steals Barrymore’s thunder. Almost.

McCloud drops in at a most inopportune time. There’s a storm brewing, in more than one sense. Along with the coming of a hurricane, the hotel has been taken over by gangsters from the Prohibition Era. Their leader is Johnny Rocco (played with gusto by Edward G. Robinson). Rocco bullies everyone (including McCloud) into submission. Me suspects a few parallels/analogies to the Nazis. Hmm …

And McCloud comes so close to parroting Rick Blaine in Casablanca when he says he’s no hero and it’s every man for himself. But Barrymore plays the role of the group’s (read: country’s/society’s) conscience. He not only welcomes Native Americans to his home, but invites McCloud to become part of his family.

I simply can’t leave out Claire Trevor’s Oscar-winning performance as Rocco’s moll, the alcoholic Gaye Dawn. When Rocco goads her into singing a cappella against her will, but desperate for a drink, Trevor pulls out all the stops. Much of why that scene works is apparently because Trevor wasn’t warned ahead of time about having to do the actual singing. It’s a stunning, heart-rending moment.

And, of course, there’s the Big Scene—at least, Barrymore’s Big Scene—when James wrests himself from the wheelchair to take Rocco on. That scene is made triply emotive by the fact that Barrymore was actually crippled disabled suffering afflicted with arthritis to the point of needing that wheelchair. His walk toward Rocco may provoke taunts and laughter from the gang, but Barrymore’s James Temple cares not a whit. He’s on a mission—doomed, but no one’s stopping him.

Without giving away too much, I’ll only say that this not only tells a suspenseful tale of thuggery versus bravery (and humanity versus nature), but crosses into social commentary in clever and (sadly) ironic ways. Plus, Barrymore’s Big Scene in the middle is almost outdone by Bogie’s Big Scene at the end. Almost. Or is it vice versa? 🙂

This post is part of the Fourth Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by Crystal at In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

Oh, and this one gets five stars! Of course! 🙂

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12 Responses to My Review of ‘Key Largo’ (1948)

  1. maddylovesherclassicfilms says:

    Cracking flick. All the cast are excellent here. The whisper in the ear scene is a film moment that is hard to forget.

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  2. My favorite lines in the movie are exchanges between McCloud and Rocco. In one, McCloud says Rocco is a man who knows what he wants, “Don’t you, Rocco?”
    What Rocco wants is more.
    “Yeah,” Rocco says, “That’s it. More. That’s right. I want more.”
    Then the final exchange in the film between McCloud and Rocco is a sort of a cliche, but Edward G. is so menacing, he pulls it off.
    And speaking of menacing, don’t forget Dan Seymour, one of my fave bad-guy actors.

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  3. Pingback: THE FOURTH ANNUAL BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON IS HERE – In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

  4. SUCH a great movie. Terrific performances and gorgeous cinematography.

    What is it that Edward G. Robinson whispers to Lauren Bacall that sets her off? I can imagine what it might be, but have you found out what it is?

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  5. “Key Largo” was one of the first classic films I had ever heard of, basically because of Bertie Higgins song, and because of Lauren Bacall. It’s also one of my favorites to this day. Thanks for covering it for the blogathon and thanks for taking part with this great post.

    I’ve also announced two more blogathons. One of them I have been asked to co-host. I would like to invite you to join in. Here are the links below.

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  6. Lovely review, on an excellent movie. The setting of the mean season, is spot-on. I remember reading about how Claire Trevor wasn’t warned about having to sing. That makes that scene emotionally excellent. And Lionel Barrymore, despite being in a wheelchair, that didn’t stop him from acting (same with his sister Ethel); that shows true love and devotion for the arts!!

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